Each Division I football team can extend 85 scholarships per season.
Those athletes constitute the foundation of a program. But they aren’t the only ones who are involved in the rigors of the work of building a team.
Nearly every Division I school has some form of walk-on tryouts, where players who weren’t offered scholarships can attempt to make the team.
These players are divided into two categories – preferred walk-ons and the others. They can be recruited in much the same way as scholarship athletes. But if these walk-ons come to school, they are responsible for paying for their education – just like most of the rest of the student body — along with practicing with their teams.
The scholarship athletes are proven and have inherent benefits because of their stature. Their walk-on teammates are in a constant cycle of proving and re-proving themselves.
Former Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield made history as the first walk-on player to earn the Heisman Trophy. Others like Brandon Weeden, Santana Moss, Clay Matthews, Jordy Nelson and Colt Brennan had memorable college careers despite a lack of interest coming out of high school.
But most of these walk-ons see gameday action with special teams, if at all.
The NCAA complies no official data on walk-on players. According to experts, the vast majority quit.
At the Division III level, scholarships for athletes don’t exist, and generally, anyone can show up for a tryout. At Hardin-Simmons, 172 athletes, all technically walk-ons, showed up for practice last fall, according to HSU defensive line coach Chris Jones.
The attrition is unique, and can be explained by many factors.
Some players get tired, some have financial concerns, some are injured.
And for every Mayfield there are a thousand disappointments. For every Rudy style moment, a million tears of frustration.
Those who have endured the travail of walking on several Big 12 programs say it’s an uphill fight that tests their resolve daily.
“I just wasn’t enjoying it as much as I had before”
Doug Wilson, a former wide receiver walk-on at Texas Tech, can’t pinpoint the exact day, but he remembers the general time where he walked away from playing football.
He came to Texas Tech as a last resort of sorts. Wilson called Texas Tech and asked when their walk-on tryouts were. A few days later he says got a call from the Red Raiders’ football staff saying that they had a walk-on spot ready for him when he arrived in the fall.
His only offer out of high school was from Wayland Baptist, an NAIA school.
“I didn’t really put myself out there enough to be recruited. I just thought that being good and getting stats, they’d find you, but that’s not how it works,” Wilson said.
Texas Tech gave him a home, and even though the fire was lost, Wilson remains in touch with his friends from those days. He left the program after fall camp of his sophomore year.
“Sometimes I miss playing the game, I miss the competition,” Wilson said. “For me, I just wasn’t enjoying it. It felt too much like work.”
Wilson also thinks that there’s a distinct difference in the day-to-day grind of a walk-on as opposed to a scholarship player.
“I always enjoyed it. I always enjoyed the competition,” he said. “The grind, the offseason, improving your craft every day…All those guys in the locker room, those guys are still all my friends even though I don’t play anymore. I had a great time at Tech, I was just tired of football.
“As a walk-on player you gotta go the extra mile…As a scholarship player I feel like things are a lot easier. You don’t gotta worry about eating, paying for school, all that kinda stuff. You can see a difference, for sure.”
“A lot of people think they can walk on. A lot of people think that they can.”
Clint Kelly sacrificed much to play football at Baylor.
His father is a former football player, Jay Kelly, who played there from 1983-85. His son grew up watching games at Floyd Casey Stadium, decked out in green and gold practically from the time he could walk.
That allegiance led him to head to Baylor even though he had opportunities to play at smaller schools.
A coaching change kept him from walking on during his freshman season. But he kept in shape and started his career there the following season.
“I joined a fraternity my freshman year, and that was great, but I don’t think there’s anything like football,” Kelly said. “It’s hard to beat,”
He was plagued with ankle sprains throughout his football career that stemmed from an offseason pickup basketball injury. But he still contributed as a long snapper and a field goal holder.
After his senior season ended, an MRI indicated that he had torn “every ligament” in his right ankle. He had played through the constant sprains and pain for a year and a half.
“A lot of people think that they want to walk on, a lot of people think that they can. I think there’s very few people that truly understand what it means,” says Kelly, whose ankle remains in a cast. “I’ve seen a bunch of guys (who) walked on, they’ll stay for a month or two, and they just can’t take it.”
“If you’re not prepared to wake up at 5 A.M. every morning for years in a row, and not have a life outside of football, then, I mean, it’s not for you.”
“Those guys are getting stipend checks every month”
Oklahoma State walk-on wide receiver Austin Parker grew up around the Cowboys, much like Kelly did at Baylor.
“My dad played at OSU from 1987-1990, my mom went to Oklahoma State, and my grandparents have been season ticket holders for probably 40 years,” Parker said. “So I kinda felt like I had no choice.”
At first, Parker went to Division 2 Southeastern Oklahoma State in 2014. It didn’t stick, and the allure of walking on at his father’s college was too strong.
“I just grew up around Stillwater and I enjoyed myself when I was younger here, so when I was making that choice, I just thought it was a great fit.”
Parker understands that the perception varies for walk-on players compared to their scholarship teammates.
“I think that from the outside looking in, from the general public, there’s probably a little bit of a difference (in response to a question about how walk-ons are viewed),” said Parker.
“When you think of a walk-on, you maybe think of some high school football kid that was maybe his small town, hometown hero that didn’t get a scholarship,” he said. “I guess there’s a set of kids that you think of, but as far as inside the program, I didn’t feel treated any different (than scholarship players).
“All the guys accepted me right away, it wasn’t like ‘Oh this kid’s a walk-on, put him at the back of the line’, it wasn’t anything close to that.”
However, even though he didn’t feel treated differently on a personal level, Parker said there are several differentiations that exist between walk-ons and scholarship players.
“Those guys are getting stipend checks every month, going out, eating food,” Parker said. “And I can’t do as much because I’m trying to pay for school so I can’t do as much of the leisurely stuff they do with that money.”
“There’s very few people that understand what that means, and the sacrifices that come with that.”
Odds are stacked at against walk-on athletes, whether it’s for Division I football or Division III swimming. Some cite burnout or financial strees. But that can provide an underlying sense of otherness they can perceive.
According to those who persevered, there are no indicators to show whether an athlete is ready to be a walk-on.
But those who have thrived say the personal rewards make everything worthwhile.
Even his ankle still in a cast, Kelly doesn’t hesitate when asked if he would try walking on again.
“Absolutely,” he says.
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